Campaigning in Mississippi last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney set off a mini-firestorm in our offices. Sometime between joking about grits and forking up some hay, down-south style, Romney uttered words that made us nearly sputter in response: "If the federal government were run more like here in Mississippi, the whole country would be a lot better off." Say what, Gov. Romney?!
See, we JFP folks cover the state government, and we watch it very closely up here in the capital city. How can we say this nicely? It's a bona fide mess. We were so astounded that four of our staffers launched a round of Twitter satire using hashtag #runitlikeMississippi to make the point that this state is no model for running anything, much less the federal government (here are our favorites).
We love this city, and state, and want it to succeed. It is home for many of us, and some of our staff came here precisely because it's such an interesting place to live and work (and so much journalism left undone). We appreciate our state despite its shortcomings, and we work every day to try to make it better.
But to say--even while pandering for votes--that our state is a model of governance is flabbergasting and insulting to our citizens.
We have a Legislature spending much of our time trying to figure out unconstitutional legislation to limit the right to an abortion, despite the resounding message Mississippi voters sent last fall on the personhood fiasco. They are scheming to force underpaid police officers to pull over people who look like they might be undocumented immigrants (meaning: Latinos). They ignore the nonpartisan data that show that immigrants, even undocumented ones, actually help our economy.
Meantime, we are one of the poorest states in the nation with the resulting crime, and our education system is almost entirely divided between decent schools for the wealthy and continually weakening education for the poor and people of color (especially thanks to No Child Left Behind). Only 42 years after courts forced schools here to integrate, our public-school system is abysmally re-segregated. State lawmakers won't take seriously the need to ensure just "adequate" funding of public schools to help make up for the resulting inequities of our Jim Crow years. Instead, they want charter schools, but without enough serious consideration of how to do them well, and what to do with kids who get left out of them.
In other words, the (mostly) men running the state Legislature want to dictate from on high what's good for the rest of us, but without considering the benefit of context, historical lessons or the need to make sure our residents have a level playing field to give them a chance at success. They want to tell women what to do with our bodies, even if it puts our lives at risk. And they continue to push the kind of bigotry against "the other" in the anti-immigration bill that isn't exactly helping our state look like the kind of state where strong companies want to come in and set up shop. Diversity is important in the business world; why would companies subject their employees to a state whose leaders push or support stereotypes about "the other," or whose supporters are more likely than not to believe the president is a Muslim (which is meant as a slur)?
This is no way to run a state, or a country, Gov. Romney.
Jackson is especially hurt by state leadership and its aversion to (a) a majority-black capital city run by (b) an African American mayor who refuses to pander to them. Last year, Mayor Johnson nearly came to blows with then Gov. Haley Barbour and now-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to get them to honor bonds to help this city's severe water infrastructure problems. It was mortifying to watch the state leadership play a power game with the city where lawmakers make laws (and let's be honest, party) over something as basic as aging, crumbling water pipes. The victims of this power-dance were the local business and restaurant owners with empty cash registers and refrigerators full of food rotting when we couldn't flush our toilets for several days.
These are not model legislators.
Meantime, they introduce bills to require drug testing of Medicaid recipients (and prohibit them to have vanity license plates). They also do everything possible to enact expensive voter ID even without evidence of voter fraud it would stop. Oh, and the chairwoman of the Senate Tourism Committee was the keynote speaker for the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens here in Jackson in 2009--not raising an eyebrow at the capitol.
Really, Mr. Romney: Are you positive you really want to run it like Mississippi?
Fortunately, we have many people of all races working to turn Mississippi around and change our reputation (granted, an uphill battle at times). Unfortunately, the folks you pandered to here tend to drown them out.
I was honored two weeks ago to be invited to the White House alongside two dozen diverse Jackson business leaders (ranging from Sen. John Horhn and Mayor Johnson to Derek Emerson of Walkers Drive-Inn and Monique Davis of Lumpkins Barbeque). Meeting with the White House Business Council to talk about what the Jackson business community needs, it was apparent that this was a different kind of group than most state leaders.
Yes, we talked about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the state and our under-educated work force, but the entire conversation (from both us and the White House team) was grounded in a context of our historical and current challenges as a city and as a state. For five hours, we discussed everything from what we could do about food deserts--entire poor neighborhoods with no access to good food--to the difficulty of educating kids (and thus a good work force) who are growing up in poverty and attending challenged schools.
This conversation was real, and it didn't focus on politics (one attendee brought up politics, and another steered the talk back on topic). It was about how we can and must strengthen the health and potential of our community at large and our local businesses--and about how the two are intertwined.
There was no denial in that room that day in Washington. And there was certainly no sense that Mississippi was being run in a way that is going to lift us off the bottom.
Gov. Romney, I urge you to find another way to run than by acting like you want to govern like our leaders. It's just a horrible idea.